by Nick Greenleaf
Smell of putrefaction, roasting garbage. The city sprawl at midday under the watch of a pitiless sun. Smog hovers over the winding, bustling streets, trapping heat and amplifying the aromas of cramped urban living.
Tomo stops periodically, pretending to examine the tech on display in the open-air market stalls. In truth, she is checking for tails. After a few such maneuvers, she casually makes her way to an inconspicuous black door, removing a glove to grip the handle. Her biometrics read, the door opens, and Tomo vanishes inside.
* * *
Paint peels off old furniture. Graffitied walls of concrete, metal shelving, discarded food containers. Electronics sprawl across every available surface. Some work. Others, Tommy and Tomo are fixing up, preparing for sale at local specialist pop-ups before the cops shut them down. Tommy lies on the cot, not quite awake, not quite dreaming. Sunlight angling through the room’s one window mercifully does not reach them against the wall.
“Tommy? You here?” A voice from below.
“Ish. What you want?”
“Got easy money.”
“No such thing,” Tommy grumbles, rolling over. There is only silence, no further repartee. Tommy gets up, walks out of what was once the factory office. Tomo is standing at the foot of the stairs, stone-faced.
“Oh, shit. You got us a job?” Tommy goes down the stairs, brushing an uncooperative bang from their eyes. “You’re making me nervous.”
Tomo says nothing for a moment. Then her face breaks. Determination, and something else.
“Yeah, I got us a job. Autley Wandiny.”
“Are you fucking insane?” Tommy hopes this is a joke. “We are not equipped for that. Most nation states are not equipped for that.”
“What nation states?” Tomo manages to quip, but her grin quickly fades. “They’ll help us out. They’re giving me a neural interface.”
“And who exactly is our sugar daddy for this?”
“Okay, seriously, Tomo, snap out of it. We are not doing this.” Tommy feels bile in the back of their throat, wills it back down. “We are not becoming pawns in that shit just because someone corporate wants plausible deniability. If they want to fight a behemoth, they can send a Goliath of their own.”
“Why not, Tommy? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”
“The fates we’re talking about tempting are a lot more vicious than the old gods.”
“We’re dying, Tommy. We’ve got seriousbacking. And I’ve got the skills. I know I do.”
“Have you used neural before?”
“Yes. Back, before. Trust me.”
Tommy rolls their eyes.
“It’s not a question of trust, Tomo. Is it true what they say about the firewalls?”
Tomo looks at Tommy. They sigh.
“Shit. You really want this?”
“More than anything.”
* * *
The neural interface arrives by decrepit van. Parked in the alley outside, it seems to fade into the dilapidation of its environment. Tommy is incredulous.
“Serious backing? This is just some lemon reject from a chop shop.”
When they see the tech, Tommy is quieted somewhat. A sleek design with sensuous, organic curves. The user lies face down atop it. Cables running out the sides plug gently into the user’s spine. Bypassing the clunky medium of coding could provide quite a bit of power to someone who knows what they’re doing. And Tomo does. She learned in the belly of the beast. Tomo runs her fingers sensually over its surface as the delivery technician departs, their unremarkable face already gone from both their memories.
“How’d that get here?” Tommy asks a few moments later, only half in jest. “I hate memory mods.”
“Shows they’re serious. It would’ve been real sloppy, sending a fancy car in here, wouldn’t it? Eyes for a hundred miles would be watching.”
Tomo spends two weeks getting to know the device. She hardly sleeps, hardly eats. Tommy unplugs her now and then, only to be greeted with a torrent of cursing in a variety of languages until they relent and plug her back in again. Tommy worries, but trusts.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s doing runs against soft targets, skimming off businesses and hedge funds, bringing in a little money to keep them afloat. Tommy handles logistics, keeps them alive, cautiously smuggling what food they can find past the gaunt wights outside their door.
To amuse themself, Tommy lights incense around Tomo, plays all sorts of sounds: Tibetan hymns, Chinese opera, Balinese gamelan ensembles. They wonder if Tomo can hear the music, if it in any way alters her dreaming. Her body lies still as she runs through digital temples, looting their coffers, sharpening herself for what lies ahead.
Meanwhile, the sprawl abides, a spider entangled yet still weaving its web. The unending double helix of demolition and construction, the life cycles of buildings dictating the fates of their denizens. Every day brings fresh waves of refugees to Tommy and Tomo’s district, displaced by renovations or rent hikes or other catastrophes. The streets grow crowded. Discontent blooms.
A police sweep comes, leaving space and haunting silence in its wake, the problem punted to another part of the sprawl until it is inevitably shunted back.
“You try Autley Wandiny at all in your travels?” Tommy asks one night as they sit at a table on the factory floor. Light dully diffuses through the rippled glass, softening the rusting metal and crumbling concrete into a backdrop of washed-out colors. Tomo looks at them for a few seconds, then sighs.
“No! It’s got me spooked. All that hype, Autley Wandiny’s killer firewall? It’s just hype, right? It’s got to be.” She takes a long pull from her beer.
“I’m using a neural interface. I’m plugging my nervous system into the god damned net. Who knows what might happen? I’ve only ever used it on a closed network before this.”
“You’ve been doing just fine, right? Taking precautions, doing antiviral scans after every run?”
“Of course! But Tommy, I’ve been robbing farmers, and now I’ve got to storm a very large and very imposing castle. One that is, without a doubt, guarded by dragons.”
“Dragons ain’t shit. Cut their heads off.”
“Ever the pragmatist,” Tomo smiles, reaching over and tousling Tommy’s hair. “If only I could bring you into battle with me.”
* * *
The day comes. Blood red creep of light across a smudged sky. Shadows in the streets, their lensed eyes white with dawn. The sun rises, and the street is revealed in its sameness. Stalls are erected, wares hawked, the ebb and flow of commerce resuming its regular hypnotic hum. A camera on every street corner. Cops with shiny new toys. Eyes for a hundred miles, wide and unseeing.
* * *
The bodies swing below the bridges. Out of sight, out of mind.
Tomo lies on the neural interface. She breathes deeply as Tommy plugs her in, one by one. Tommy pauses before the last. Tomo coughs, and it is done. Her body relaxes as it has so many times before.
Tommy engages in surface-level trickery, diversionary tactics, probing Autley Wandiny’s defenses by every possible avenue. The idea is to trigger as many alarms as possible while Tomo sneaks in through a backdoor Tommy isn’t entirely sure exists.
That is, if the gatekeeper doesn’t catch her first.
* * *
Tomo is standing on a barren plain. The grass is just short, yellow stubble. Air wavers and shimmers. She can see for miles. There is nothing. Nothing save a shadow in the distance. A figure walking toward her.
She knows the gait before the features become clear. Feels her blood freeze. The rumors are true. They really do fry you with your own brain.
“You know, in certain Buddhist hells, men climbed razor sharp trees in pursuit of women, so driven were they by lust. But what are their appetites compared to yours, sweet Tomo?”
Hector is as he was when she met him, dashing and confident, not the husk she parted from later. It’s been nearly ten years since they last spoke. A good-natured smile animates his broad features, and she wonders if he is living or dead.
“You were never this cruel,” Tomo replies.
“Not until I met you.”
Tomo feels it in her stomach. Not this. Anything but this.
“I was so warm and full of light, wasn’t I? It’s what drew you in, what bound you to me. Why’d you have to go and snuff it out, Tomo? Where’s my light?” His voice becomes a sob, voice shuddering, body shuddering, his body wasting away. Face growing emaciated, eyes sunken. Tomo watches him, moved despite herself.
“I did nothing to you.”
“Really? Then why did I become nothing? Nothing but a broken ghost, a corpse awaiting disposal? Why did I give up? What broke me?”
“It wasn’t me,” Tomo whispers without conviction. “You were an addict.”
“Maybe. Maybe you got me hooked. Maybe I only ever did it to share something with you.”
“That is not true. You introduced it to me. That first night—”
“Was my first night too.”
Tomo wants to vomit.
“All to impress a beautiful woman. All to impress you.”
“No, I saw the tracks. You had tracks. I know you did.”
“You don’t sound so sure, Tomo. Perhaps the mind plays tricks.”
“This isn’t real. They’re just tapping into me, feeding me my fears. This isn’t real.”
“The kernel of fear is always truth, Tomo.”
* * *
Another shadow approaches. An old woman, unsmiling, glinting black eyes cold and unrelenting.
“You came from me?” she asks Tomo dubiously.
“You love me.”
“I was an actress, dear. And you were never very bright.”
“You encouraged me . . .”
“To get you the hell away from me. Look how well it worked.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You will, dear. You will. We’re going to be here a while, and you remember how persuasive I can be.”
The names and faces change, but the weight only multiplies. Tomo has no name. No memory. No past. No future. Her lips form the words “I’m sorry,” but she can no longer remember what they mean or what she is apologizing for.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Tommy is screaming as they desperately pull the plugs out of Tomo’s spine. Tears trickle from her blank eyes as her mouth mutely forms words. Tommy rolls her over. She stares past the ceiling. There is no ceiling, no smog, no sky. Only the reality of pain.
Her legs jerk helplessly as her nervous system shuts down, leaving Tommy alone in the dark.
* * *
The technician watches a screen. A counter, running since the incursion began, has stopped. 10.00037 seconds. The technician slurps his soft drink, belches. His partner looks at the screen and whistles.
“Ten seconds. That’s like ten thousand years down there, ain’t it?”
“Something like that. Time gets funny once they’re inside the event horizon.”
“What a trip. I can’t imagine anyone deserving to suffer that long, let alone that way.”
“Look at it like this,” the first technician says, preparing to inhale his fries. “They’re criminals. Something like that’d never happen to people like you and me, right?”
The second technician laughs nervously. His daughter’s cancer treatments aren't covered by insurance anymore. Streamlining of benefits, they’re calling it. He’s sure everything will be fine though. They’ll make it work. He knows they will. He’ll find a second job.
Take out a loan. Everything will be fine.
He’ll come up with the money, somehow.
Nick Greenleaf is an experimental musician based in Rochester, New York.